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Specialists and generalists: Equilibrium skill acquisition decisions in problem-solving populations


  • Anderson, Katharine A.


Many organizations rely on the skills of innovative individuals to create value, including academic and government institutions, think tanks, and knowledge-based firms. Roughly speaking, workers in these fields can be divided into two categories: specialists, who have a deep knowledge of a single area, and generalists, who have knowledge in a wide variety of areas. In this paper, I examine an individual's choice to be a specialist or generalist. My model addresses two questions: first, under what conditions does it make sense for an individual to acquire skills in multiple areas, and second, are the decisions made by individuals optimal from an organizational perspective? I find that when problems are single-dimensional, and disciplinary boundaries are open, all workers will specialize. However, when there are barriers to working on problems in other fields, then there is a tradeoff between the depth of the specialist and the wider scope of problems the generalist has available. When problems are simple, having a wide variety of problems makes it is rational to be a generalist. As these problems become more difficult, though, depth wins out over scope, and workers again tend to specialize. However, that decision is not necessarily socially optimal – on a societal level, we would prefer that some workers remain generalists.

Suggested Citation

  • Anderson, Katharine A., 2012. "Specialists and generalists: Equilibrium skill acquisition decisions in problem-solving populations," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 84(1), pages 463-473.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:84:y:2012:i:1:p:463-473
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2012.08.003

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David N. Laband & Robert D. Tollison, 2000. "Intellectual Collaboration," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 108(3), pages 632-661, June.
    2. Michael Kremer, 1993. "The O-Ring Theory of Economic Development," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 108(3), pages 551-575.
    3. Edward P. Lazear, 2004. "Balanced Skills and Entrepreneurship," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(2), pages 208-211, May.
    4. Åstebro, Thomas & Thompson, Peter, 2011. "Entrepreneurs, Jacks of all trades or Hobos?," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(5), pages 637-649, June.
    5. Sanjeev Goyal & Marco J. van der Leij & José Luis Moraga-Gonzalez, 2006. "Economics: An Emerging Small World," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(2), pages 403-432, April.
    6. Francisco José Acedo & Carmen Barroso & Cristóbal Casanueva & José Luis Galán, 2006. "Co-Authorship in Management and Organizational Studies: An Empirical and Network Analysis," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 43(5), pages 957-983, July.
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    More about this item


    Skill acquisition; Specialization; Jack-of-all-trades; Problem solving; Knowledge based production; Human capital;

    JEL classification:

    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity
    • O31 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Innovation and Invention: Processes and Incentives
    • D00 - Microeconomics - - General - - - General
    • M53 - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting; Personnel Economics - - Personnel Economics - - - Training
    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions


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